“This is one of the most horrible songs you’ll ever hear,” Ilan Vitemberg said with a grin as he cued up Israel’s Eurovision submission for 2000.
“Sameyakh,” by Ping Pong, is truly terrible, but that’s not why Vitemberg was playing it for his audience at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco on Nov. 4.
As part of his lecture, “Israel’s History Through the Lens of the Eurovision Contest,” he wanted to make sure the attendees noticed that the singers (actually four students who entered the contest as a joke) waved both Israeli and Syrian flags near the end of the song.
It was the year Israel and Syria were closer than ever to a peace agreement. “Especially when it comes to Israel, everything is political,” said Vitemberg, a kibbutz-raised educator, puppeteer and Lehrhaus Judaica instructor who used to direct an Israel education program for Jewish LearningWorks.
Eurovision, the song competition that Americans love to ridicule — if they’ve heard of it at all — is a yearly event that Vitemberg said shouldn’t be underestimated: It’s actually one of the most-watched televised events in the world, with 186 million people tuning in for the 2018 show. And it’s not just about cheesy power ballads or inexplicable folk-pop mashups. Each country’s entry reflects what’s happening in the world, and sends a dual message— one for the international viewers, and another one for the people back home.
For Israel, it’s sometimes been a message of hope, like 1979 winner “Hallelujah,” sung right after Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty that ended decades of war. Or it could have a more hidden meaning, like the 2015 entry “Golden Boy,” performed in English by a 16-year-old French-born Israeli after the tragic kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens. To anyone outside Israel, the ninth-place song was a catchy dance tune about a broken-hearted boy who cures his aches by celebrating life and dancing, but to Israelis the message went deeper
“Our message to ourself is: It’s hard, it’s hard, but we’ll get over it,” Vitemberg said.
Israel has been competing in Eurovision since 1973. But one question Vitemberg addressed is why Israel participates at all. “Israel is not in Europe,” Vitemberg pointed out. “It doesn’t matter how much we try.”
Eurovision, which started in 1956 with seven countries and a live orchestra, is open to any country that accepts the rules set down by the European Broadcasting Union, which runs the event. Israel actually was the first non-European country to participate. It had its first win in 1978 with Izhar Cohen & Alphabeta performing “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” another win the very next year with Milk and Honey doing “Hallelujah” and a third win in 1998, when Dana International, the competition’s first transgender winner, sang “Diva.” In this year’s competition, held in May, Israel bagged its fourth win.
Next year, 42 countries will compete, including Azerbaijan and Australia. They’ll also vote: Half the points each song receives are from a jury, but the other half come from audience votes by phone and text.
But the significance of Eurovision isn’t just about the winning, Vitemberg said.
In 1983, when the contest was held in Germany, Israel participated with a song called “Chai” about survival, sung by Ofra Haza. In 1991, Israel’s entry was “Kan,” a song Vitemberg called “very Zionist,” with the lyrics “Here I was born, here my children were born. Here I built my home with my own two hands.” Of course, neither the jury nor most of the viewers could understand, as the song was in Hebrew. But that wasn’t the point.
“This conversation is going on inside Israel,” he said.
Vitemberg has been giving this lecture for a few years, as part of “Israel for Reel,” a series he developed with the Israeli Cultural Connection initiative at Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. The talk at the library was co-sponsored by the S.F.-based Israeli Consulate and Jewish Community High School of the Bay. But as many times as Vitemberg has given the lecture, this year’s had a different ending.
That’s because Israel’s contestant, Netta, won six months ago in Lisbon, Portugal, with a clever, audacious tune called “Toy.” It was Israel’s first top-five finish in more than a decade.
Sung in English (rules about whether the song has to be in the country’s language have changed over the years; currently it is not required), the song put down men who think they can trifle with women and used Netta’s skill in looping, a production trick involving recording multiple tracks on the fly — including, in this case, some clucking chicken noises that baffled a lot of people when they first heard it.
But besides questions about the artistic content of her song, Netta’s win opened up a new debate. By Eurovision’s current rules, the winner of each contest hosts the next year’s event. That means in 2019, Eurovision will be in Israel, which has stirred up debate both inside the country and out.
After Israel’s win, two Irish members of the European Parliament immediately tweeted a call for a boycott. Then came months of wrangling within Israel over where the show would be held. Culture minister Miri Regev, a Likud party member, first said it should be in Jerusalem or not at all, but eventually the decision was made to hold it in Tel Aviv, widely seen as a less controversial decision. The European Broadcasting Union also told Israel it couldn’t ban Eurovision visitors based on their political views, nor could it restrict elements of the contest that would happen on Shabbat.
That makes sense for something that Vitemberg called “a drag show between countries.” But the political drama is also part of Eurovision. After all, what generally seems like a frothy, fun song contest — full of over-the-top kitsch and goofy stunts — has deeper meaning below the surface.
“It’s very political,” he said. “That’s partly why this contest exists.”